The MT Diary

Artless Vancouver enjoys the boom; John Major in the pink; what could rein back PE?

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It may seem a long way to go, but if you want to find a property boom just like London's, Vancouver is the place. British Columbia has won a double rollover in recent years. First, it has benefited from the oil and commodity boom. Second, it is the major entry point for Chinese imports into North America. Vancouver is now the biggest port on the western seaboard, with more tonnage than San Diego or Oakland.

So property prices have gone through the roof, commercial buildings have sprouted like mushrooms and fancy restaurants serving Arctic char and British Columbia Gewurztraminer (together - ugh) are on every corner. There is, however, nothing in the art gallery: Vancouver still has not found its Getty or its Sainsbury. The cappuccino is good: the pictures are not. There are plenty of interesting Canadian novels in this year's Man Booker crop, but the art scene lags well behind.

In fact, the Canadians are pretty business-focused these days. On the back of oil, the Looney (what foreign exchange dealers like to call the Canadian dollar) has strengthened against the US dollar. Yet Canadian manufacturing is doing well. I was told that more cars are made in Ontario than in Michigan, and two of the contenders for Chrysler are Canadian firms. That would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

One big risk, though, is political instability. The new Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, has done well, but a tally of more than 50 Canadian deaths in Afghanistan is putting pressure on his government. No Canadian soldiers had been killed in action since Korea. The new Liberal leader, Stephane Dion, says he'd pull the troops out, in spite of the Nato commitment. I watched him interviewed unconvincingly on French-Canadian TV and concluded that they would be better off with Celine.

From Vancouver to Birmingham to to appear on Any Questions with the ageless Jonathan Dimbleby. Hazel Blears was the Government stooge. She did not have an easy time of it. Some of the 'lines to take' in Blair's late blue period are a tough sell with the Brummies.

Nor did she sell many 'Hazel for deputy leader' mugs. In fact, she's not selling much of anything these days since her website shop has been shut down. Until the other day, you could buy 'I'm nuts about Hazel' T-shirts, but it turns out that they were made by a company with dubious associations with sweatshops in Bangladesh. So they have been withdrawn. Somewhere in Salford there must be warehouses groaning with unsold stock. Recycling ideas to Blears at the House of Commons, please.

It's pretty much an iron rule these days that former politicians are much more interesting to listen to than the serving crew. I hope this is not a 'don't policemen look young these days?' observation. I think the reason is that the Government's 'lines to take' now cover so much more than they used to.

In the past, ministers had to stick to the party line in their department, and on the big issues of the day. No-one seriously expects cabinet ministers to go off-piste on Iraq. But, nowadays, if asked about the weather, junior ministers riffle through their briefing pack to find the bit that says there will be a depression over Northern Ireland but continuous sunshine in the South-east. And not even a thunderstorm over Trafalgar Square will budge them from that view.

So it was a relief to hear John Major reflect on his time in office the other day at the LSE. Ten years out of office have made him look 10 years younger, and not only because of his pink tie and rather dramatic pink socks - clearly, the dress code at Credit Suisse and the Carlyle Group is pretty flexible these days. He told us how he thought hard about resigning on Black Wednesday but had been dissuaded by his colleagues. He was remarkably charitable towards the 'bastards', though I suspect they are still off his party list. Then he offered some unsolicited but heartfelt advice for Tony Blair as he leaves office: 'Get as far away from politics as you possibly can.'

I'm not sure his successor will take that advice, but investment banking and private equity have clearly been good for and to John Major.

That is probably not the only reason why so many students want to go into private equity these days. It might have something to do with the money. But, clearly, there are also fads and fashions. Private equity is today's new, new thing. Hedge funds are soooo 2005 it's not true.

We held an alternative investments conference here at the School, and the KKRs, Alchemies, Cairns and GLGs came to set our their stalls. The students organised it themselves, and a huge quantum of net worth turned up to speak. They all said their piece about transparency, value-added and all that, and explained why further regulation was not required.

What will happen? I suspect there may be some modest tax changes, and that the industry will need to get better at explaining itself. But it is quite hard to see how any regulatory regime can police private-equity firms without gumming up the overall market for corporate control, which would have many damaging economic consequences. So a wall of money will continue to bear down on our less dynamic corporations - until someone is left holding an expensive baby that they cannot sell on. That is bound to happen before too long. Not a bad thing, probably.

Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics.

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